Tales of Tomorrow, Today: Beijing Wrap Up

Greetings from the future!

Oh what marvelous adventures we have had in Beijing, our first stop in this future world where our today is your tomorrow. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes, once foreign to us, are becoming more familiar but our journey has only just begun and many destinations still await our arrival.

If only we had the time, and you the interest, for individual blog posts on each fantastical vision we encounter on our travels, but we must keep moving forward and our time in Beijing is over. We have actually moved on to our second, third and fourth destinations, but before we update you with dispatches from these newest eastern outposts, here is a look back at our adventures in Beijing.

The Summer Palace

On our third day in Beijing, we somewhat casually decided to take the subway out to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is perhaps most closely associated with the empress dowager Cixi, a controversial figure in Chinese history. It’s not that we didn’t think it would be a worthwhile sight to see, we just underestimated how taken we would be with its confluence of architecture and landscape design.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Summer Palace boasts an abundance of pavilions, temples, shrines, halls and bridges all set amidst a natural setting of incredible beauty.

I present to you the Summer Palace:

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Lama Temple and Temple of Confucius 

What cathedrals are to Europe and ancient ruins to South America, so are pavilions to China. Pavilions seem to be the mainstay for every site of historical importance: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and so it is the case with these two impressive religious sites of worship.

The Lama Temple is said to be the most renowned Buddhist temple outside of Tibet and is still an active site of worship. Chris and I respectfully lit three joss (incense) sticks and presented them before the Hall of Boundless Happiness, which contains the largest wood carved Buddha in the world.

The Temple of Confucius, where people worshipped Confucius during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, was initially built in 1303, according to signage contained within the Temple. Confucius is enshrined in the main structure, Da Cheng Hall.

Photography wasn’t permitted at the Lama Temple, so these are just from the Temple of Confucius:

The 798

Many tourists are drawn to China because of its offerings of antiquity. The Great Wall, centuries old temples, shrines and artifacts dating back to pre-BCE —  touring China provides a passport to the ancient world. That said, part of what makes China so compelling is the juxtaposition of the old with the new. Modernity abounds in China, especially in its urban areas. The country is seemingly on the cutting edge of most things, and the 798 Art District, made famous by artists like Ai Weiwei, is a perfect example of this contrast.

Here is a description from 798district.com:

798 stands for much more than a three digit number: in Beijing these numbers symbolize the country’s cutting edge art movement led by the Chinese vanguard, unchained artistic personalities with alternative life goals. The largest, most influential art district in China – the 798 – hosts world-class international and Chinese exhibitions in the midst of former weapons factories.

And here are our photos from the 798:

Some of the photos (Nikon camera) from the 798 were contributed by guest photographer, Leviathon Murphy.

Enjoy and we’ll talk again soon. Next stop, Qingdao!

 

The Soup Incident

Air quality be damned! Here in the future, exercise is just as valued as in the world we left behind. Despite varying levels of pollution, Chris and I have been starting off our days with a morning run. It’s a great way to cover a lot of ground, sight seeing while getting our heart rates going.

The mornings are great for people watching too. From what we observed, the people of Beijing lead very active lives and enjoy physical activity. Many are out running and walking, swimming in the city lakes, and doing exercises and playing ping pong in public parks.

As an added bonus, running in the morning gives me the opportunity to practice my Chinese, “Zao sheng hao (good morning)!” is warmly received and returned by most, along with the occasional laughter (which can be attributed to Chris’ short running shorts and/or my running tights).

On our runs we also observe the morning commuters making their way to work or school on foot, bicycle, motorbike and car. It’s a busy time of day but not as chaotic as I had expected a city of more than 21 million to be come rush hour. That is because Beijing is an extremely vast city, geographically. Beijing’s population of 21+ million is spread out over 6,487 square miles, making for an estimated population density of about 3,300 people per square mile. Whereas New York City, for example, has more than 8.4 million packed into just 302 square miles, amounting to a population density of more than 27,000 people per square mile according to the United States Census Bureau.

On one morning run, we popped into a local eatery buzzing with morning commuters, mostly solo, quickly grabbing breakfast and heading on their way. The interactions were short and meals were efficiently consumed with little time wasted. No morning papers being read or chit chat exchanged; just order, eat, leave is the way of a busy Beijing commuter.

Undoubtedly, Chris and I were unexpected patrons for this restaurant — foreigners, red faced and sweaty and sporting running clothes — and we bumbled through our exchange with the woman dishing out the food. Chris wanted baozi (steamed buns and a safe bet when it comes to eating local food), but I wanted to try something new.

Along with baozi, soup is a common breakfast food in China. There were a few different options, and I chose one with a hearty looking redish brown broth. We attempted to ask what it was, and the woman said doufu, which means tofu and sounds pretty much the same as it does in English. I’m fond enough of tofu, so I gave the thumbs up. (Note: when you find yourself in a country where you don’t speak the language, you end up giving the thumbs up a lot. This is likely where the perception that Americans are constantly giving the thumbs up comes from.)

I wish I could report that my exploratory order was happily received by yours truly, but I must confess I had my first food regret leading to a mild crisis of weighing rudeness and embarrassment against my distaste for what turned out to be a thick, gelatinous stew of brown syrupy broth and mushy tofu. The white soft tofu was recognizable enough, but the texture of the broth, unnoticeable in its pot prior to being ladled into my bowl, gave me some alarm.

What could this strange dish be?

My mind immediately leapt to my guidebook’s mention of blood soup. Though uncommon in the U.S., many countries’ cuisines use blood as an ingredient in different foods. The Irish and British have their blood (black) pudding and the Chinese have duck blood soup. And now I was concerned I was eating it.

Chris astutely pointed out that there were no ducks in sight so my fear was highly unfounded. Still my mind had made a leap of logic and the irrationality proved hard to dispel.

I turned to my neighbor who was eating the same soup and gestured toward the soup and said the word, jiurou (pork), trying to guess at what this could be. She laughed and said no. I didn’t know the word for blood and even if I had, pointing at soup and uttering, “blood?” to a stranger, if in fact it wasn’t blood, I realized could understandably frighten said stranger. Furthermore, knowing that an open ended question of, “What is this?” would only get me an answer too complicated for either Chris or me to understand, I gave up trying to figure out what it was that my bowl contained and set about finishing as much of it as I could. With Chris’ help, we ate more than half of it. Since we also finished up all 12 or so baozi, we figured this effort would satisfy the restaurant owners and not offend too greatly.

Upon arriving back to the hostel, I promptly showed the English speaking staff a photo of the soup and to my great relief, they told me it was bean curd soup — also called tofu jelly (hence the texture).

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So, no blood. Phew.

Since this incident, I have done a little research into duck blood soup and found that it is a signature street food of the city of Nanjing and is listed as #4 on a list of iconic Nanjing foods to try. Chris and I will be visiting Nanjing in a few weeks and now that I know what goes into the soup, I may be up to trying this local staple. I just wasn’t mentally prepared for spoonfuls of blood quite yet, especially first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. Of course, traveling is all about trying new things, so bring on the duck blood soup please!

 

 

Goodness Gracious, Great Wall of China

Greetings from the future, dear readers!

Descriptions of Beijing are rarely complete without an adjective pointing to size.   “Big,” “very big”, and “huge,” would be appropriate, but many of you at home, in the present, may not be aware of what kind of “super huge,” we are seeking to describe.  China’s capital is large in both population, boasting somewhere north of 20 million people, as well as area.  Walking around most of Beijing (with some exceptions) is a decidedly tamer experience than Manhattan.  Those of you who have travelled to Jacksonville, Florida (the largest city by area in the continental United States) will understand the experience of a 2 hour drive beginning and ending in the same city.

Our trip to The Great Wall of China involved a three hour trip on a bus to Jinshanling from our hostel, one mile north of the Forbidden City.  Jinshanling is in Beijing, on the border of Hebei Province.  The Wall was initially built to keep out the Mongolians, who previously controlled what is now Northern Hebei Province as well as the currrent Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.

There are several places to view The Great Wall near Beijing, with Badaling being the easiest to access and thereby the most popular.  While I was averse to the extra time and money needed to get to Jinshanling, the experience of walking on the Great Wall without thousands of other tourists was well worth it.

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We hiked about four miles in total, from Jinshanling to our pickup point at Simatai.  The above picture shows Maria sporting a red sweater given to her by my Grandmother.  The red sweater, which is a color revered in China, got a lot favorable comments from the locals on the Wall.

We will have more videos moving forward, as we slowly, but surely, figure out how to use iMovie.

For now though, we’re off to have breakfast.

Have a good night!

Here are some more photos from the Wall …

So Ducking Good (Thanks Autocorrect!)

Greetings from the future!

Hello dear readers! It’s just past 11:30 p.m., and I am sleepily writing this dispatch with a belly full of Peking duck. I’ve had Peking duck before in the U.S., but experiencing this famous dish in its namesake city (Beijing used to be called Peking in English before the modern pinyin transliteration) was an unforgettable food-life moment.

From preparation to table side presentation and demonstration, the Peking duck makes for a collaborative and hands-on affair — more than just a meal, it’s an occasion. Here are five steps to ordering and eating Peking duck based on our experience tonight.

1.  Order a whole duck. I don’t care if you’re dining alone. The presentation is lost on a half order, so bring a friend to dinner or make room in your stomach because it’s worth it.

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2.  Not too long after putting in  the order, the chef and his carving station rolled up to our table to deliver the whole, crispy and beautifully browned duck, and without a word he began carving away.

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3.  Once a plate full of meat was ready (there will be several total), the waitress began her demonstration of how to assemble the meal. Peking duck is served with paper thin pancakes to wrap the duck and its fixings. From what I could discern, the fixings included cucumber, pickled radish, scallion, finely minced garlic and the critical fermented bean sauce (like hoisin sauce). Additionally, there were two condiments that I couldn’t identify, but one tasted sweet like a firm piece of strawberry jam and the other was possibly a mushroom type of relish. The waitress wore a clear mouth shield to presumably prevent her from spitting or breathing on our food during the presentation, which was interestingly considerate.

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4.  Chris and I struggled to mimic the waitresses’ graceful finesse but ultimately had to resort to using our hands to get a pancake rolled up and from plate to mouth.

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5.  And don’t forget to try a piece of duck skin dipped in sugar! It’s a flavor combination that pushes the savory/sweet envelope.

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That’s Peking duck in five steps. Oh, and lastly step six: find a bed and give into your duck fat induced coma.

Good night!

A Mouthful of Scorpions

Greetings from the Future!

It is 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 17. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Instead of shamrocks and leprechauns, I present to you skewered scorpions, starfish, sea horses, silk worm cocoon kebabs and more! These are just a few of the many tasty treats sold in the bustling food market section of Wangfujing Street.

Gluten free and protein rich, could fried scorpions be the next new trendy specialty diet snack? I won’t hold my breath for that to happen. If fact both foreigners and Chinese passers-by seem more apt to snap a photo of the arthropod appetizer than to hand over their yuan and sample it. But there were a brave few who seemed to be enjoying the odd delicacy.

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Here the scorpions are fried and ready to eat. Though squirmming and poisonous before meeting their grilled end, cooking is said to render their sting ineffective. One would hope so!

My guide book, DK Eyewitness Travel Guides: China, provides some insight into the history of food in China:

One of China’s perennial problems has been how can such a large population feed itself (currently a fifth of the world’s people) when less than 10% of its land is arable? The answer lies in centuries of innovation and efficiency in the fields and in the kitchen. The Chinese have developed a “famine cuisine.”

Necessity is the mother of all invention, as the saying goes.

You’ll pass on the scorpions, you say? Well how about a skewered starfish? Or maybe a silkworm cocoon kebab is more your thing? A bit squeamish, not to worry. There are plenty of less intimidating offerings like baozi and grilled squid at the market for the faint of heart (myself included). But be warned, it’s tourist prices you’ll pay. Still, the spike in prices are worth it to be able to sit and enjoy the sights surrounding you.

Since landing on this side of the planet, our days have been full of new sights, sounds, tastes and experiences. Chris, having lived in China before, has been a trustworthy navigator, easing the daily challenges and confidently co-piloting our adventure. We have much more to report from the last few days, so stay tuned. For now, I leave you with some photos from the sensory playground that is the Wangfujing market.

Sitting Pretty in the Forbidden City

Greetings from the Future!

It is just past 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 15. Much has transpired since our last dispatch. We traversed the North Pole, Siberia and through time and space and finally arrived at our first destination, Beijing. After breezing through customs and baggage claim, we successfully navigated the airport express train and the Beijing subway system — a feat that I am quite proud of — and arrived at our hostel, the Beijing Downtown Backpackers Accommodation at around 6:30 p.m, Friday night.

We sipped on Tsingtao beers at the bar next door to the hostel and were soon joined by China resident and good friend from back home, David Petito. It was at this point that our plans of having a low key evening — with the goal of simply staying awake until an appropriate bedtime hour in order to get on local time — were dashed.

What ensued was a rollicking night out in Beijing’s Hutong neighborhood featuring beer, burgers and surprisingly good live music at Club Dada. Despite having gone nearly 48 hours without a good night’s sleep, we managed to stay out until nearly 2 a.m. This triumphant effort was effective in conquering our jet lag. We woke up Saturday morning at the appropriate hour of 9 a.m. Unfortunately, the unpleasantness of jet lag was replaced with a biting hangover. But we didn’t let this keep us down.

Unfazed, we attacked the day and the city with a youthful zest that defied my throbbing head and unsettled stomach. The stomach may be due to the fact that I made the bold decision to fast track my GI system’s assimilation by brushing my teeth with tap water — a decision whose consequences will be revealed with time.

Our first day in The People’s Republic of China’s capital city included sight seeing in Tiananmen Square and the  Forbidden City, and was filled with culinary marvels like baozi (steamed buns), meat on sticks, noodles and hot pot.

Photo by Leivianthon Murphy

Here we are eating baozi and enjoying a Chinese Coca Cola. We tried the meat (pork) and veggie varieties, both of which also had cellophane noodles inside as part of the filling. (Photo by Leivianthon Murphy)

I am now back at the hostel about to go to sleep. We have another big day ahead of us, but first, here are some  photos from our adventure so far:

Photos by guest photographer Leviathon Murphy.